Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New England Revolution Flying Machine Crashes at Buzzard Point: Tale No. 4

Prof. Langley's Model 1/4th Scale Protoype of Flying Machine, August 8, 1903
(Image: Wikipedia Commons)

By David Rusk

Revised November 11, 2021
Originally published in Black and Red United, December 27, 2016

Preface: This is the fourth in a series of Tales from Buzzard Point that explores the rich traditions and myths surrounding the legendary DC United soccer team and its fabled history at Buzzard Point.

Note from the Author: In reading David McCulloch’s The Wright Brothers, I ran across the fact that the failed launching of Prof. Samuel P. Langley’s experimental airplane on December 8, 1903, had occurred at “Arsenal Point.” I knew immediately that “Arsenal Point” was actually “Buzzard Point.” For a couple of decades at the turn of the last century, official Washington had adopted the designation “Arsenal Point” in reference to its proximity to the Washington Arsenal (now Fort McNair). However, clearly the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers was popularly known as “Buzzard Point,” as attested by the editorial cartoon The Evening Star ran on its front page the next day.

Boston-born and educated (Boston Latin School, English High School of Boston, Harvard College Observatory), Samuel Pierpont Langley was chosen in 1887 to be the third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was one of the most famed scientists of his era and, in the words of The Evening Star “Prof. Langley has spent the best part of his life working out the problem of aerial navigation, and has contributed many valuable papers to science on this subject. He is probably the foremost authority in the world on aerodromes and aeroplanes, and has been experimenting with machines for many years.”

His latest project was supported by a $50,000 appropriation from the federal government to which was added another $20,000 that Prof. Langley had raised privately (the two totaling almost $1,000,000 in today’s dollars).

Langley’s “aerodrome” (as he called his flying machine) was catapulted from a large, specially built houseboat (think of it as a miniature aircraft carrier) “in the center of a fleet of small boats and yachts, among which were the army engineers' boat Pontonier and The Evening Star's launch name Olga. The hundreds of spectators were to be sent away deeply disappointed by the famed Bostonian’s spectacular failure.

The story commanded two full-page columns (about 2,500 words) on page 11 of The Evening Star the next day. Here are the headlines and the lead paragraphs of the story.

Headline: Airship Fails to Fly

The Evening Star
December 8, 1903.

(Washington City). Prof. Langley's airship goes to the bottom of the Potomac River. Prof. Manly was aboard and was rescued from a perilous position. A large crowd was present off Arsenal Point yesterday afternoon to view the test flight.

The test of the Langley aerodrome at the confluence of the Potomac River with the Eastern branch yesterday afternoon was a complete failure. The sixty-foot machine, a perfect bit of mechanism, was launched at exactly 4:45 o'clock. Within thirty seconds it had described a half somersault, doubled up like an athlete taking a hurdle, and had fallen into the river, broken and twisted into a mass of wood, steel, and linen, with its nose in the mud on the river bottom. Prof. Charles M. Manly, who attempted to fly the machine, was buried under the mass of debris but was quickly rescued by Fred Hewitt, one of the workmen on the houseboat, and Private Adelson of the Signal Corps, U. S. A. The airship was a complete wreck. Prof. Samuel Langley, the inventor of the ill-fated machine, said the collapse was due to a defect in the launching mechanism. The conditions were said to be absolutely perfect for the test.

Old Boat launches airplane
Prof. Langley's Aerodrome before Crashing on First Flight
into Potomac River, December 3, 1903
(Image: Wikipedia Commons)

The long period of preparation and waiting put on edge the nerves of even the most sanguine of those connected with the airship. Everybody was under strong tension and excitement from the start, and the catastrophe which brought the test to a conclusion fell like a wet blanket on everyone.


Author's Afterword: While there were many skeptics in the crowd of people who witnessed the test, one spectator, clad in black and Red, was overheard to forecast afterward that “there will never be a celebration at Buzzard Point for any Revolution out of New England.”

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